A deadly day and a US strategy shift
At least 15 US soldiers were killed Sunday, as Bremer pushes for more Iraqi security forces.
BAGHDAD — Sunday was the deadliest day for US forces in Iraq since the occupation began here six months ago. A string of ambushes underscored the biggest challenges before America as it seeks to pacify Iraq: Developing intelligence and training friendly Iraqi forces in order to stem the rise in attacks.
At least 15 US soldiers were killed and 21 wounded when the Chinook helicopter transferring them to Baghdad's airport for two weeks of home leave was reportedly shot down near the town of Fallujah, where attacks on coalition forces have soared in recent weeks. Coalition spokesman Col. William Darley said reports of a missile attack are "unconfirmed." The Associated Press and Reuters cited witnesses who saw a shoulder-launched missile strike the helicopter.
Another US soldier was killed when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Baghdad, and there were unconfirmed reports of other US casualties across Iraq.
The US had indications this weekend would prove a deadly one, with Iraqi informants warning that "major operations" were planned against the coalition and rumors swirling in the markets and mosques of Baghdad that a "day of resistance" was planned for Saturday.
The attacks bring home the fact that even when there is advance warning, the coalition's enemies remain elusive. Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, told reporters on Saturday after a bloody week that "to prevail we must shift and adapt."
He said Iraqis would be more involved in seeking out the two main threats to the coalition: The armed insurgents, many loyal to Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath regime, who are centered in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" near Baghdad; and the foreign Islamists who, the coalition says, are behind the suicide bombings and are probably tied to Al Qaeda.
"On the security front, we will accelerate the turnover of responsibility and authority to Iraqis,'' Mr. Bremer said. The reason: while US troops won the war in record time, limited language skills and local contacts have gotten in the way of developing relationships that could produce good intelligence. For example, the local shopkeeper who sees men in his neighborhood carrying missiles into a warehouse or an imam who notices an increase in foreign men attending prayers could help uncover a scattered and opportunistic resistance.
"Iraqis bring vital language and cultural skills to the task of fighting terrorism ... they will recognize the strangers, they will hear different accents [and] be able to help us identify the strangers and particularly the foreign fighters," Bremer said.
Bremer also promised faster Iraqification of security forces, with accelerated training and equipping of Iraqi police, soldiers, and border guards. Bremer said the country's civil defense corps will double by next March from about 70,000, and that 200,000 Iraqis would be involved in securing the country by September.
Analysts say that involving more Iraqis, particularly in intelligence work, is a vital step, but warn that it will take time to yield results.
"The lack of good, reliable, and solid intelligence is the biggest challenge for the coalition right now," says M.J. Gohel, the executive director of the Asia Pacific Foundation, an independent think-tank in London. "I believe they're coming to grips with this, but it will take time. There will be more bad days."
Mr. Gohel says the coalition erred in the fast disbanding of Saddam Hussein's sprawling intelligence service and army.
"In hindsight they shouldn't have done this. Saddam Hussein had a very good intelligence service and many of those people would be willing to cooperate to a certain extent. In postwar Germany, many Nazi officers were kept on."
The change in approach comes after weeks of complaints from members of the US- appointed Governing Council, many of whom argued that the US was not putting enough trust in local police and informal intelligence networks, at its own peril.
"We Iraqis know how to tell the good guys from the bad guys,'' said Entifadh Qanbar, a top aide to Governing Council member and Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi. "So far, if the Iraqi police capture a terrorist they have to hand him over to the Americans. This has to change. We can handle this problem a lot better."
Mr. Qanbar says there are regional accents, appearances, and manners of dress that are clues to whether someone belongs in an area or not. Coalition forces have trouble tuning into these clues. "Iraqi investigators are going to handle investigations much better than a soldier from Alabama or Wisconsin," he says.
The Chinook was the third US helicopter brought down by enemy fire since the end of the war, and the second brought down in the past eight days. The Chinook is a lumbering beast of a helicopter that transfers soldiers, artillery, and ammunition to and from the battlefield.
Despite the bloody week, Bremer and the commander of forces on the ground in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, were upbeat in a Saturday press conference. General Sanchez called the recent string of attacks on his forces a "operationally and strategically insignificant surge of attacks."
"We are winning the global war on terrorism and I remain absolutely convinced that we are winning in this country,'' he said. "The security situation continues to stabilize ... there is security and stability across great parts of [Iraq]."
Still, the attacks tend to undermine public confidence, and how secure ordinary Iraqis feel - very different things from the rising number of schools or sewers rehabilitated.
After the terrorist strikes on Monday, the anxiety levels of average Baghdadis spiked, and when the rumors of weekend attacks began, the city dropped into a defensive crouch.
On Saturday morning, usually crowded shopping streets were deserted, half of the stores shuttered. At Al Nidamiya elementary school in central Baghdad, a low cement building still smelling of paint from a recent coalition-sponsored renovation project, the jovial headmaster Ishak Sawa said only one of his 500 charges showed up for school - the son of the deputy headmaster.
"We're trying to get back to normal, but parents won't take risks with their children and I don't blame them,'' says Sawa. "This is why terrorism is so hard to deal with."